Cryptocurrency: The Economics Of Money And Selected

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Cryptocurrency: The Economics of Money andSelected Policy IssuesUpdated April 9, 2020Congressional Research Servicehttps://crsreports.congress.govR45427

SUMMARYCryptocurrency: The Economics of Money andSelected Policy IssuesCryptocurrencies are digital money in electronic payment systems that generally do not requiregovernment backing or the involvement of an intermediary, such as a bank. Instead, users of thesystem validate payments using certain protocols. Since the 2008 invention of the firstcryptocurrency, Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies have proliferated. In recent years, they experienced arapid increase and subsequent decrease in value. One estimate found that, as of March 2020,there were more than 5,100 different cryptocurrencies worth about 231 billion. Given this rapidgrowth and volatility, cryptocurrencies have drawn the attention of the public and policymakers.R45427April 9, 2020David W. PerkinsSpecialist inMacroeconomic PolicyA particularly notable feature of cryptocurrencies is their potential to act as an alternative form of money. Historically,money has either had intrinsic value or derived value from government decree. Using money electronically generally hasinvolved using the private ledgers and systems of at least one trusted intermediary. Cryptocurrencies, by contrast, generallyemploy user agreement, a network of users, and cryptographic protocols to achieve valid transfers of value. Cryptocurrencyusers typically use a pseudonymous address to identify each other and a passcode or private key to make changes to a publicledger in order to transfer value between accounts. Other computers in the network validate these transfers. Through this useof blockchain technology, cryptocurrency systems protect their public ledgers of accounts against manipulation, so that userscan only send cryptocurrency to which they have access, thus allowing users to make valid transfers without a centralized,trusted intermediary.Money serves three interrelated economic functions: it is a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value. Howwell cryptocurrencies can serve those functions relative to existing money and payment systems likely will play a large partin determining cryptocurrencies’ future value and importance. Proponents of the technology argue cryptocurrency caneffectively serve those functions and will be widely adopted. They contend that a decentralized system using cryptocurrenciesultimately will be more efficient and secure than existing monetary and payment systems. Skeptics doubt thatcryptocurrencies can effectively act as money and achieve widespread use. They note various obstacles to extensive adoptionof cryptocurrencies, including economic (e.g., existing trust in traditional systems and volatile cryptocurrency value),technological (e.g., scalability), and usability obstacles (e.g., access to equipment necessary to participate). In addition,skeptics assert that cryptocurrencies are currently overvalued and under-regulated.The invention and proliferation of cryptocurrencies present numerous risks and related policy issues. Cryptocurrencies,because they are pseudonymous and decentralized, could facilitate money laundering and other crimes, raising the issue ofwhether existing regulations appropriately guard against this possibility. Many consumers may lack familiarity withcryptocurrencies and how they work and derive value. In addition, although cryptocurrency ledgers appear safe frommanipulation, individuals and exchanges have been hacked or targeted in scams involving cryptocurrencies. Accordingly,critics of cryptocurrencies have raised concerns that existing laws and regulations do not adequately protect consumersdealing in cryptocurrencies. At the same time, proponents of cryptocurrencies warn against over-regulating what they argueis a technology that will yield large benefits. Finally, if cryptocurrency becomes a widely used form of money, it could affectthe ability of the Federal Reserve and other central banks to implement and transmit monetary policy, leading some observersto argue that central banks should develop their own digital currencies (as opposed to a cryptocurrency); others oppose thisidea.The 116th Congress has shown significant interest in these and other issues relating to cryptocurrencies. For example, theHouse has passed several bills (H.R. 56, H.R. 428, H.R. 502, and H.R. 1414) aimed at better understanding or regulatingcryptocurrencies.Congressional Research Service

Cryptocurrency: The Economics of Money and Selected Policy IssuesContentsIntroduction . 1The Functions of Money . 2Traditional Money . 3No or Limited Role for a Central Authority: Intrinsic Value. 3Government Authority: Fiat Money . 3Banks: Transferring Value Through Intermediaries . 4The Electronic Exchange of Money . 5Cryptocurrency: A New Money? . 7Description . 7The Price and Usage of Cryptocurrency . 8Potential Benefits of Cryptocurrencies . 10Potential Economic Efficiency .11An Alternative to Existing Intermediaries and Systems . 12Potential Challenges to Widespread Adoption . 13Challenges to Effectively Performing the Functions of Money . 13Technological Challenges: Scaling, Transaction Validation Speed, and EnergyConsumption . 14Possible Need for New Intermediaries . 15Potential Risks Posed by Cryptocurrencies . 15Criminality . 16Money Laundering . 16Tax Evasion . 18Financial Sanction Evasion . 19Consumer Protections . 19Applicable Regulation . 19Arguments That Current Protections Are Inadequate . 21Arguments That Current Regulation Is Unnecessarily Burdensome . 22Monetary Policy Considerations . 22Possible Effects of Widespread Adoption of Private Cryptocurrencies . 22Central Bank Digital Currencies . 24Potential Benefits of Central Bank Digital Currencies . 25Potential Challenges of Central Bank Digital Currencies . 25Potential Effects of Central Bank Digital Currencies on Monetary Policy. 26Prospectus . 26CRS Resources . 26FiguresFigure 1. Cryptocurrency Values . 9TablesTable 1. Selected CRS Products Covering Cryptocurrency Related Issues . 26Congressional Research Service

Cryptocurrency: The Economics of Money and Selected Policy IssuesContactsAuthor Information. 27Congressional Research Service

Cryptocurrency: The Economics of Money and Selected Policy IssuesIntroductionIn 2008, an unknown computer programmer or group of programmers using the pseudonymSatoshi Nakamoto created a computer platform that would allow users to make valid transfers ofdigital representations of value.1 The system, called Bitcoin, is the first known cryptocurrency. Acryptocurrency is digital money in an electronic payment system in which payments are validatedby a decentralized network of system users and cryptographic protocols instead of by acentralized intermediary (such as a bank).2Since 2009, cryptocurrencies have gone from little-known, niche technological curiosities torapidly proliferating financial instruments that are the subject of intense public interest.3 Recently,they have been incorporated into a variety of other financial transactions and products. Forexample, cryptocurrencies have been sold to investors to raise funding through initial coinofferings (ICOs),4 and the terms of certain derivatives are now based on cryptocurrencies.5 Somegovernment central banks have examined the possibility of issuing cryptocurrencies or otherdigital currency.6 Media coverage of cryptocurrencies has been widespread, and various observershave characterized cryptocurrencies as either the future of monetary and payment systems thatwill displace government-backed currencies or a fad with little real value.7When analyzing the public policy implications posed by cryptocurrencies, it is important to keepin mind what these currencies are expressly designed and intended to be—alternative electronicpayment systems. The purpose of this report is to assess how and how well cryptocurrenciesperform this function, and in so doing to identify possible benefits, challenges, risks, and policyissues surrounding cryptocurrencies.8 The report begins by reviewing the most basiccharacteristics and economic functions of money, the traditional systems for creating money, andtraditional systems for transferring money electronically. It then describes the features and1Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, January 2009, p. 1, at This report will use the term cryptocurrencies to refer to a specific type of digital or virtual currencies—currenciesthat only exist electronically—for which transfers of real value are validated using cryptographic protocols that do notrequire a trusted, centralized authority. The report will use the more general terms digital currencies and virtualcurrencies where appropriate to refer to these broader classes of currencies that are digital representations of value butdo not necessarily use cryptographic protocols.3 William J. Luther, “Bitcoin and the Future of Digital Payments,” The Independent Review, vol. 20, no. 3 (winter2016), p. 397.4 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, “Investor Bulletin: Initial Coin Offerings,” press release, July 25, 2017, al-coin-offerings.5 U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), “CFTC Staff Issues Advisory for Virtual Currency Products,”press release, May 21, 2018, at 18.6 Bank of International Settlements, Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures, Markets Committee, CentralBank Digital Currencies, March 2018, pp. 1-3, at Julie Verhage and Lily Katz, “Jack Dorsey Is All In on Bitcoin as the Currency of the Future,” Bloomberg, May 16,2018, at of-thefuture; Chris Newlands, “Stiglitz, Roubini and Rogoff Lead Joint Attack on Bitcoin,” Financial News, July 10, 2018, 9.8 Detailed examination of the blockchain technology underlying most cryptocurrencies; their secondary uses ininvestment products, such as in securities offerings and as the underlying assets in derivatives contracts; and certaininternational implications, such as their potential use to evade financial sanctions, are beyond the scope of this report.Instead, where questions related to these issues may arise, this report will provide references to other CRS products. Inaddition, a general list of CRS products related to cryptocurrencies is included at the end of the report (see Table 1).Congressional Research Service1

Cryptocurrency: The Economics of Money and Selected Policy Issuescharacteristics of cryptocurrencies and examines the potential benefits they offer and thechallenges they face regarding their use as money. The report also examines certain risks posedby cryptocurrencies when they are used as money and related policy issues, focusing in particularon two issues: cryptocurrencies’ potential role in facilitating criminal activity and concerns aboutprotections for consumers who use these currencies. Finally, the report analyzes cryptocurrencies’impact on monetary policy and the possibility that central banks could issue their own,government-backed digital currencies.Where this report examines the regulation of cryptocurrencies, it generally focuses on how theyare regulated in the United States. For information on the regulatory approaches of othercountries, see CRS Report R45440, International Approaches to Digital Currencies, by RebeccaM. Nelson.The Functions of MoneyMoney exists because it serves a useful economic purpose: it facilitates the exchange of goodsand services. Without it, people would have to engage in a barter economy, wherein people tradegoods and services for other goods and services. In a barter system, every exchange requires adouble coincidence of wants—each party must possess the exact good or be offering the exactservice that the other party wants.9 Anytime a potato farmer wanted to buy meat or clothes orhave a toothache treated, the farmer would have to find a particular rancher, tailor, or dentist whowanted potatoes at that particular time and negotiate how many potatoes a side of beef, a shirt,and a tooth removal were worth. In turn, the rancher, tailor, and dentist would have to make thesame search and negotiation with each other to satisfy their wants. Wants are satisfied moreefficiently if all members of a society agree they will accept money—a mutually recognizedrepresentation of value—for payment, be that ounces of gold, a government-endorsed slip ofpaper called a dollar, or a digital entry in an electronic ledger.How well something serves as money depends on how well it serves as (1) a medium ofexchange, (2) a unit of account, and (3) a store of value. To function as a medium of exchange, thething must be tradable and agreed to have value. To function as unit of account, the thing must actas a good measurement system. To function as a store of value, the thing must be able to purchaseapproximately the same value of goods and services at some future date as it can purchase now. 10Returning to the example above, could society decide potatoes are money? Conceivably, yes. Apotato has intrinsic value (this report will examine value in more detail in the following section,“Traditional Money”), as it provides nourishment. However, a potato’s tradability is limited:many people would find it impractical to carry around sacks of potatoes for daily transactions orto buy a car for many thousands of pounds of potatoes. A measurement system based on potatoesis also problematic. Each potato has a different size and degree of freshness, so to say somethingis worth “one potato” is imprecise and variable. In addition, a potato cannot be divided withoutchanging its value. Two halves of a potato are worth less than a whole potato—the exposed fleshwill soon turn brown and rot—so people would be unlikely to agree to prices in fractions ofpotato. The issue of freshness also limits potatoes’ ability to be a store of value; a potatoeventually sprouts eyes and spoils, and so must be spent quickly or it will lose value.Scott A. Wolla, “Money and Inflation: A Functional Relationship,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Page OneEconomic Newsletter (March 2013), pp. 1 - 2, at 3 Money Trade Barter Inflation.pdf.10 Governor of the Riskbank Stefan Ingves, “Do We Need an E-Krona?” Speech to Swedish House of Finance,Stockholm, Sweden, August 12, 2017, pp. 3-4, at onal Research Service2

Cryptocurrency: The Economics of Money and Selected Policy IssuesIn contrast, an ounce of gold and a dollar bill can be carried easily in a pocket and thus aretradeable. Each unit is identical and can be divided into fractions of an ounce or cents,respectively, making both gold and dollars effective units of account. Gold is an inert metal and adollar bill, when well cared for, will not degrade substantively for years, meaning can bothfunction as a store of value. Likewise, with the use of digital technology, electronic messages tochange entries in a ledger can be sent easily by swiping a card or pushing a button and can bedenominated in identical and divisible units. Those units could have a stable value, as theirnumber stays unchanging in an account on a ledger. The question becomes how does a lump ofmetal, a thing called a dollar, and the numbers on a ledger come to be deemed valuable bysociety, as has been accomplished in traditional monetary systems.Traditional MoneyMoney has been in existence throughout history. However, how that money came to have value,how it was exchanged, and what roles government and intermediaries such as banks have playedhave changed over time. This section examines three different monetary systems with varyingdegrees of government and bank involvement.No or Limited Role for a Central Authority: Intrinsic ValueEarly forms of money were often things that had intrinsic value, such as precious metals (e.g.,copper, silver, gold). Part of their value was derived from the fact that they could be worked intoaesthetically pleasing objects. More importantly, other physical characteristics of these metalsmade them well suited to perform the three functions of money and so created the economicefficiency societies needed:11 these metals are elemental and thus an amount of the pure materialis identical to a different sample of the same amount; they are malleable and thus easy divisible;and they are chemically inert and thus do not degrade. In addition, they are scarce and difficult toextract from the earth, which is vital to them having and maintaining value. Sand also couldperform the functions of money and can be worked into aesthetically pleasing glass. However, ifsand were money, then people would quickly gather vast quantities of it and soon even low-costgoods would be priced at huge amounts of sand.Even when forms of money had intrinsic value, governments played a role in assigning value tomoney. For example, government mints would make coins of precious metals with a governmentsymbol, which validated that these particular samples were of some verified amount and purity.12Fiat money takes the government role a step further, as discussed below.Government Authority: Fiat MoneyIn contrast to money with intrinsic value, fiat money has no intrinsic value but instead derives itsvalue by government decree. If a government is sufficiently powerful and credible, it can declarethat some thing—a dollar, a euro, a yen, for example—shall be money. In practice, these decreescan take a number of forms, but generally they involve a mandate that the money be used forsome economic activity, such as paying taxes or settling debts. Thus, if members of society want11R. W. Clower, Money and Markets, ed. D. A. Walker, 4th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp.81-89.12 Stephine Bell, “The Role of the State and the Hierarchy of Money,” Cambridge Journal of Economics, vol. 25, no. 2(March 2001), pp. 152-153.Congressional Research Service3

Cryptocurrency: The Economics of Money and Selected Policy Issuesto participate in the relevant economic activities, it behooves them to accept the money aspayment in their dealings.13In addition to such decrees, the government generally controls the supply of the money to ensureit is sufficiently scarce to retain value yet in ample-enough supply to facilitate economicactivity.14 Relatedly, the government generally attempts to minimize the incidence ofcounterfeiting by making the physical money in circulation difficult to replicate and creating adeterrence through criminal punishment.15Modern monies are generally fiat money, including the U.S. dollar. The dollar is legal tender inthe United States, meaning parties are obligated to accept the dollar to settle debts, and U.S. taxescan (and generally must) be paid in dollars.16 This status instills dollars with value, becauseanyone who wants to undertake these basic economic activities in the largest economy andfinancial system in the world must have and use this type of money.In the United States, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System maintains the valueof the dollar by setting monetary policy. Congress mandated that the Federal Reserve wouldconduct monetary policy in the Federal Reserve Reform Act of 1977 (P.L. 95-188), directing it to“maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with theeconomy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals ofmaximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.”17 Under this system,a money stock currently exceeding 15 trillion circulates in support of an economy that generatesover 21 trillion worth of new production a year,18 and average annual inflation has not exceededa rate of 3% since 1993.19In addition, the Federal Reserve operates key electronic payment systems, including thoseinvolving interbank transfers.20 In this way, the Federal Reserve acts as the intermediary whenbanks transfer money between each other.Banks: Transferring Value Through IntermediariesBanks have played a role in another evolution of money: providing an alternative to the physicalexchange of tangible currency between two parties. Verifying the valid exchange of physicalDror Goldberg, “Famous Myths of ‘Fiat Money,’” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, vol. 37, no. 5 (October2005), pp. 957-967.14 Throughout history, governments in various countries have failed at times to keep money sufficiently scarce. Thisfailure generally results in high or volatile inflation wherein the country’s money experiences large losses in value,leading to disruptions in economic activity.15 Cyril Monnet, Counterfeiting and Inflation, European Central Bank, Working Paper Series No. 512, August 2005, p.1, at pdf?23040cc45f22e8ddebc3af75d4d9d526.16 31 U.S.C. 5103.17 12 U.S.C. 225a. For more information, see CRS Report RL30354, Monetary Policy and the Federal Reserve:Current Policy and Conditions, by Marc Labonte.18 Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “M2 Money Stock as of August 2018,” nt/default.htm, accessed on March 10, 2020; and U.S. Bureau ofEconomic Analysis, “Seasonally Adjusted, Annualized Current-Dollar GDP,” fourth quarter 2019, at 1&reqid 19&step 2&0 survey, accessed on March 10, 2020.19 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Annual Average of 12-Month Percent Change of the CPI-U, Not SeasonallyAdjusted,” at, accessed on October 5, 2018.20 Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, “What Is the Fed: Payment Services,” at what-is-the-fed/payment-services/.13Congressional Research Service4

Cryptocurrency: The Economics of Money and Selected Policy Issuescurrency is relatively easy. The payer shows the payee he or she is in fact in possession of themoney, and the transfer is valid the moment the money passes into the payee’s possession. Thissystem is not without problems, though. Physically possessing money subjects it to theft,misplacement, or destruction through accident.21 A physical exchange of money typically requiresthe payer and payee be physically near each other (because both parties would have to have ahigh degree of trust in each other to believe any assurance that the money will be brought or sentlater).From early in history, banks have offered services to accomplish valid transfers of value betweenparties who are not in physical proximity and do not necessarily trust each other. Customers givebanks their money for, among other reasons, secure safekeeping and the ability to send paymentto a payee located somewhere else (originally using paper checks or bills of exchange).Historically and today, maintaining accurate ledgers of accounts is a vital tool for providing theseservices. It allows people to hold money as numerical data stored in a ledger instead of as aphysical thing that can be lost or stolen. In the simplest form, a payment system works by a bankrecording how much money an individual has access to and, upon instruction, making appropriateadditions and reductions to that amount.22The mechanics of the modern payment system, in which instructions are sent and records arestored electronically, are covered in more detail in the following section, “The ElectronicExchange of Money.” What can be noted here in this basic description is that participants musttrust the banks and that ledgers must be accurate and must be changed only for valid transfers.Otherwise, an individual’s money could be lost or stolen if a bank records the payer’s account ashaving an inaccurately low amount or transfers value without permission.A number of mechanisms can create trust in banks. For example, a bank has a market incentive tobe accurate, because a bank that does not have a good reputation for protecting customers’ moneyand processing transactions accurately will lose customers. In addition, governments typicallysubject banks to laws and regulations designed in part to ensure that banks are run well and thatpeople’s money is safe in them.23 As such, banks take substantial measures to ensure security andaccuracy.The Electronic Exchange of MoneyToday, money is widely exchanged electronically, but electronic payments systems can be subjectto certain difficulties related to lack of scarcity (a digital file can be copied many times over,retaining the exact information as its predecessor) and lack of trust between parties. Electronictransfers of money are subject to what observers refer to as the double spending problem. In anelectronic transfer of money, a payer may wish to send a digital file directly to a payee in thehopes that the file will act as a transfer of value. However, if the payee cannot confirm that thepayer has not sent the same file to multiple other payees, the transfer is problematic. BecauseLibby Kane, “Keeping Cash Under Your Mattress Is a Terrible Idea. Why Are So Many Americans Doing It?” SlateBusiness Insider Blog, February 11, 2015, at insider/2015/02/11/keeping cash at home way too many americans do it.html.22 Aleksander Berentsen and Fabian Schar, “The Case for Central Bank Electronic Money and the Non-case for CentralBank Cryptocurrencies,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, vol. 100, no. 2 (second quarter 2018), p. 97106.23 For more information on the regulation of banks in the United States, see CRS Report R44918, Who RegulatesWhom? An Overview of the U.S. Financial Regulatory Framework, by Marc Labonte.21Congressional Research Service5

Cryptocurrency: The Economics of Money and Selected Policy Issuesmoney in such a system could be double (or any number of times) spent, the money would notretain its value.24As described in the preceding section, this problem traditionally has been resolved by involvingat least one centralized, trusted intermediary—such as a private bank, government central bank,or other financial institution—in electronic transfers of money. The trusted intermediariesmaintain private ledgers of accounts recording how much money each participant holds. To makea payment, an electronic message (or messages) is sent to an intermediary or to and betweenvar

Apr 09, 2020 · of blockchain technology, cryptocurrency systems protect their public ledgers of accounts against manipulation, so that users can only send cryptocurrency to which they have access, thus allowing users to make val

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